The Buzz

Did Russia Ever Have a Shot at Winning the Cold War?

Could the Soviets have won the Cold War? In retrospect, Soviet defeat seems overdetermined.  The USSR suffered from a backwards economy, an unappealing political system, and unfortunate geography. But even into the 1980s, many Cold Warriors in the West worried that Red Victory was imminent.

We can think of Red Victory in two ways; first, if the fundamental rules of the competition between the United States and the USSR had operated differently, and second if Moscow and Washington had made different strategic decisions along the way.

Changing the Rules

The idea of socio-political “rules” that dictate how the world works runs counter to a lot of work in the social sciences. Still, certain social and political experiments initiated at the start of the Cold War ran aground on the shoals of social and human capacity. If we imagine the loosening of some of these “rules” then the Soviet and American experiments might have performed differently.

It was not obvious that central planning would fail as dismally as it did.  Some economists, often working from the experience of World War II, believed that central governments could process information with sufficient speed and accuracy to successfully allocate resources across a society.  This included the allocation of capital (human and resource) to technological innovation. In a wartime context, this worked well enough; the state could direct investment away from consumer goods and towards critical military production and innovation. In peacetime, the system worked less well, as workers and consumers demanded better treatment.

As it turned out, of course, state central planning fell short of the various forms of capital allocation found in the West, especially where innovation was concerned. This eventually had an impact on military innovation, as civilian technological contributed to military advances. Eventually, the United States could rely on its productive civilian economy not only to out-produce the Soviets in consumer goods, but also to produce more effective weapon systems.

On the other hand, if the American system had proven less resilient to economic and social pressures, then the United States might have had to give up on the Cold War. During the 1960s, this looked distinctly possible. Although the economy continued to perform well, social conflict over civil rights, and over Vietnam War, threatened to cause serious damage to U.S. democracy. Informed by a version of Marxist orthodoxy, Soviet planners expected that class conflict and economic stagnation would produce precisely this outcome, but in reality it happened for reasons that they could not have predicted. The crisis of the West emerged not from economic dislocation, but from its opposite; the 1950s and 1960s were an economic “golden age” according to Thomas Piketty, who observed that inequality in wealth and income began to accelerate in the 1970s. The social upheaval that threatened to destroy the West in the 1960s stemmed from the decay of systems of social and political inequality, rather than from a stagnating economy.

Related to this, we now think of the U.S. commitment to a certain level of civil liberties as one of its greatest Cold War strengths. The far greater tolerance in the United States (which ran far short of absolute) for political dissent created an altogether stronger and more attractive social system, while also synergizing with the economic system to enable consistent economic growth and technological innovation.  At the time, however, many (both in the West and in the USSR) believed that tolerance for civil and political liberties exposed social and political weakness; the repressive Soviet system could better weather internal dissent than the relatively open American system.

Finally, the United States drew a tremendous amount of strength from the international economic system that it created at the end of World War II. This system eventually extended across the developing world, and supplied the West with the labor forces and raw materials necessary to vastly outperforming their Communist counterparts. If revolutionary models had proven more appealing in the postcolonial world, the balance of economic power might have shifted. In reality, while the Soviet political and economic model had some appeal across the developing world, would-be revolutionaries still found themselves embedded within a larger system that pushed them into collaboration with the West.

Strategic Decisions

What about changes that don’t involve breaking the world open and tinkering with the mechanisms? In this case the immense vulnerability of the USSR weighs against success, but there are still some strategies that might have played out more effectively.